Sudan Floggings Violate International Law

The government of Sudan has abducted a United Nations media worker and is preparing to issue a verdict that might have her flogged 40 times for the “crime” of wearing pants. According to Sudan’s extreme interpretation of Islamic law, the aid worker’s two-legged pants are considered to cause “harassment to the public sentiments”. She will be brutally whipped 40 times as punishment for risking the emotional discomfort of Sudanese citizens, by wearing pants that for most people conceal a woman’s body from view.

Lubna al Hussein, a journalist and UN aid worker, has chosen to resign from her UN post, shedding her immunity from prosecution, in order to highlight the manner in which this brutal treatment is meted out to women in Sudan. The totalitarian regime of Omar al-Bashir, reinforced by a campaign of terror and mass killing in various parts of the country, uses fundamentalist Islamic dictates to subject women to a position of permanent degradation and limited rights. Hussein’s case is just one of many.

She was detained at a cafe in Khartoum, along with 12 other women, 10 of whom were flogged for indecency, inside a police station, just two days later. Hussein’s position at the UN meant subjecting her to such punishment was more complicated. She might actually require a trial, if she gave up immunity. She clearly recognized the opportunity to educate the outside world about the depths of cruelty authorities would resort to in furtherance of their arbitrary use of power.

In a show of support for her cause, female friends appeared in court wearing pants, putting themselves at risk as well. The judge adjourned her hearing until 4 August, to allow Hussein time to leave her UN post and face prosecution legally. After the hearing, Ms. Hussein said “This is a case about annulling the article that addresses women’s dress code, under the title of indecent acts. This is my battle. This article is against the constitution and even against Islamic law itself”.

According to the AP:

Women in the mostly Arabized and Muslim northern Sudan, particularly in the capital Khartoum, dress in traditional outfits that include a shawl over their head and shoulder. Western dress is uncommon.

Still, the raid on a Khartoum cafe popular with journalists and foreigners was unusual.

There are suspicions the raid itself may be part of an ongoing campaign to intimidate and scare off foreign aid workers, human rights workers and reporters, who might be trying to bring to light crimes committed against the people of Darfur, or against women broadly. Sudan is one of the most brutal nations in terms of its treatment of women, imposing a violent brand of shari’a law, even against the non-Muslim population.

SIGI, the OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index, reports:

Women in Sudan have a very low level of legal protection in relation to family matters. At time of publication, no information was available regarding laws that define a legal minimum age of marriage. According to available statistics, early marriage appears to be widespread. A 2004 United Nations report estimated that 21 per cent of girls between 15 and 19 years of age were married, divorced or widowed. …

Women in Sudan have a very low level of protection for their physical integrity. To date, there are no specific laws prohibiting violence against women, including domestic violence, which is common. Women who file claims are subject to accusations of lying, and the police normally do not intervene.

Women also have virtually no property rights of any kind, and divorce proceedings always assign custody of children to the father. Some observers blame ancient superstitions that treat women as “unclean” or as vehicles for temptation and possession. Others believe Sudan’s authoritarian social structures are mirrored in its political structures, and that (as in many countries where crushing poverty and violent human rights abuses are commonplace) women are seen as a potential voice for the popular conscience, and must be kept from giving testimony in the public sphere or taking roles of responsibility.

Ms. Hussein’s lawyer, Nabil Adib, says the law “is quite unnecessary and degrading. It is harassment.” Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the UN, has said the sentence of flogging would be “against the international human rights standards”. Indeed, the level of suffering inflicted, in comparison with the alleged offense, rises to the level of crime against humanity. According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Explanatory Memorandum, crimes against humanity:

are particularly odious offences in that they constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings. They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority. Murder; extermination; torture; rape and political, racial, or religious persecution and other inhumane acts reach the threshold of crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice. Isolated inhumane acts of this nature may constitute grave infringements of human rights, or depending on the circumstances, war crimes, but may fall short of falling into the category of crimes under discussion.”

The flogging of Lubna al-Hussein is not genocide, but it is torture, and it is not an isolated incident. It is part of a routine and brutal campaign of oppression against a subgroup of the population, all women, through the imposition of laws that justify and promote torture and other cruel treatment. Ms. Hussein is using this trial to demonstrate that the flogging of the women detained with her, and of herself, “are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government”.

In 2004, Amnesty International reported on plans by the Sudan government to flog Intisar Bakri Abulgader, a 16-year old girl, 100 times for the “crime” of adultery:

Cruel punishments are an everyday part of Sudan’s legal system, despite being in clear violation of Sudan’s obligations under international human rights law. Now is the time for the international community to support human rights campaigners in Sudan and turn up the pressure on the government of Sudan to stop these cruel punishments.

This illegal torture is not in fact isolated or sporadic, but is “an everyday part of Sudan’s legal system”, meaning that under international law, the regime of Omar al-Bashir is using torture and other atrocities to maintain its grip on power. Such facts of life in Sudanese society are part of the cause for the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Bashir for crimes against humanity, its first ever such indictment of a sitting head of state.

Ms. Abulgader’s crime was becoming pregnant. She became pregnant out of wedlock, a crime for which a woman can be subjected to 100 lashes. The alleged father of the child was not accused and was not prosecuted. If her lover had been married, she could have been sentenced to death by stoning. Both the punishments themselves and the way they are adjudicated are fundamental violations of international law.

In its 2004 report on the case, Amnesty noted “Scores of people were sentenced to amputation or flogging in Sudan last year. Flogging is frequently carried out immediately after sentencing leaving no chance for appeal, even when there are concerns about whether a fair trial has been held.” Sudan’s judicial proceedings fly in the face of international standards for due process and basic human rights, and rights groups persistently allege women are often “convicted” on nothing more than hearsay, while violent rapists are often not prosecuted, because the state demands physical “proof” from a woman before even opening an investigation.


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